Rob Oller | Ohio State shows toughness against Michigan State

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Musa Jallow, left, competes for a rebound with Michigan State's A.J. Hoggard during the Buckeyes' 79-62 victory on Sunday.

This must be what the Brits felt like when William the Conqueror went all Battle of Hastings on them in 1066.

In this scenario, Ohio State is Bill, Michigan State is previously impenetrable England and the end result is, no, not an arrow through Harold’s eye, but shocking nonetheless. Ohio State 79. The Vanquished 62.

Let’s review. In Tom Izzo’s 26 seasons in East Lansing, Michigan State has been the tough guy of the Big Ten. Not dirty, but opponents facing MSU better bring plenty of ice bags with them. Sparty was not always the biggest dog in the fight, but the fight inside the pup was more than enough to make up for any lack of size. The Spartans were the eighth-century British Isles in baggy shorts.

And everyone knew it. Players such as Draymond Green, Morris Peterson, Adreian Payne, Mateen Cleaves and Zach Randolph protected the basketball court borders in a way that said, "Proceed at your own risk.”

Now? The want-to may be there but the can’t-do is, too. When that happens, the intimidation factor plunges. Consider what happened last week, when MSU lost 67-37 to Rutgers. True, Sparty was coming off an 18-day layoff between games, due to COVID-19, but nothing should excuse an Izzo team from attempting only five free throws. That screams soft, or at least not interested in attacking the opponent. The Spartans picked up the pace on Sunday, attempting 31 foul shots.

In one sense, watching what is happening to Michigan State is unfortunate, especially for the reputation of the Big Ten. There is beauty in watching a team roll up its sleeves and get to work. 

On the other hand, to the victor goes the spoils, and the Buckeyes this season are bringing the toughness and “right way to play” mentality that has defined Michigan State for more than two decades.

Additionally, if you are Ohio State and used to getting your brains beat in by the Green/White bullies, well, Sunday at Value City Arena was payback time. It was the Buckeyes’ first win against Michigan State since the 2017-18 season.

Noticeably, it wasn’t just Ohio State’s players that asserted themselves on the last day of January. Coach Chris Holtmann let official Larry Scirotto know in no uncertain terms how unhappy he was with more than a few calls, at one point engaging Scirotto in discussion at center court. The normally vociferous Izzo, meanwhile, engaged in mild protest at points but just as often clasped his hands behind his head while turning away from the floor, unable to watch his players execute.

The Spartans’ offense wasn’t very good. And isn’t. Michigan State entered the weekend ranked last in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, turnover percentage and two-point field goal percentage. Izzo teams are known to improve come NCAA Tournament time, but I don’t see any “there” there with these Spartans.

The No. 13-ranked Buckeyes, however, are maximizing their abilities. Watching Ohio State, one wonders how it is working so well? No single player is exceptional, yet collectively things are clicking. It helps that Holtmann continues to prove he is one of the best coaches in the conference, and possibly the nation.

But there is more to it than top-notch coaching. These Buckeyes play with a confidence that builds toughness. And a toughness that builds confidence. To wit: Shooting guard Justice Sueing is not afraid to go to the hoop, 6-foot-7 forward E.J. Liddell plays bigger and stronger than his size and senior forward Kyle Young is the glue down low, bringing a physical nastiness that would have fit perfectly on previous Izzo teams. Alas, for MSU the shoe is on the other foot.

“Our plan was to come out and set the rules early,” Young said. “We wanted to be the tougher and more aggressive team. We’re a pretty tough team.”

Tough, if not always super smart. Ohio State still attempts too many head-scratching three-pointers. (Izzo isn’t the only coach unable to watch at times; Holtmann performed a 180-degree spin in disgust at an off-target Justin Ahrens three attempt early in the shot clock.) But even though MSU cut a 20-point deficit to nine with 4:20 left, the Buckeyes showed mental toughness down the stretch by closing on a 7-0 run, holding Sparty without a point the last 3:06.

That kind of tenacity used to define Michigan State. The Buckeyes have invaded that space.